Public sector IT has a mixed reputation, and not just in Ireland. The 2021 HSE breach, for instance, left many concerned about the state of the country’s IT estate in general. Other countries have faced similar breaches: Britain’s National Health Service, for example, has been targeted, notably the London-based Barts Health NHS Trust this year.
Against that, public sector bodies, from organisations like the HSE to local councils, face more public scrutiny than the typical run-of-the-mill business and, perhaps more to the point, the services they provide are often more critical. As a result, the demands on their IT systems are often higher and more complex.
Indeed, public organisations often find themselves between a rock and a hard place: citizens want smooth, frictionless access to services online, but at the same time make strong compliance, security and privacy demands, sometimes complaining about project costs to boot.
Asked which Irish public service or local authority already had a good digital offering, Ciarán Harris, director and principal consultant at user experience design consultancy Each&Other, praised the fact that Ireland’s public bodies were all online. That does not mean the job is complete, though, he said.
Pretty much all of them have digital presences at this point. Good is questionable.
The problem, he said, is one that is common across many public platforms: the best sites and apps are functional, but often difficult to use.
“If you look at the best of the Irish public services’ offerings, what you often find is an engineers’ site, but not a really well-designed site. It’s quite unclear where you’re going on a particular journey, and it’s a series of fragmented journeys rather than a holistic experience,” he said.
For Harris, this is precisely the kind of problem that can be solved with design thinking which puts the user at the centre of the thought process driving a site or app.
“Where experience can be quite disjointed, I think that’s where a good design approach can help. The lack of a coherent information architecture means you go round and around. Some of the recent advances, such as AI [artificial intelligence] in a chat interface, could be very powerful for government. You could just ask the bot and it would take you where you need to go and even assist in completing forms,” he said.
More broadly, Harris said, while the government has shown a commitment to the digitalisation of public services, the outcome has been bedevilled by the lack of a single overarching strategy.
We have a government digital strategy, gov.ie, mygovid.ie, local government digital transformation, an open data initiative, and more. Design can help to bring this all together.
Some of Ireland’s EU peers have done just this, he said, notably Estonia.
“All three Baltics are very advanced, but Estonia is the leader. Whereas we have a siloed approach to everything, Estonia decided having good services would attract investment back into the country – and they were right,” he said.
In fact, some EU states have a long history of online public service delivery that Ireland could learn from, said Harris, who previously lived in Finland.
“When I moved to Finland, in 2000, they were already streets ahead of everyone else. It doesn’t bode well [for Ireland] that the head of digital transformation at the HSE got frustrated and left.”
Indeed, when professor Martin Curley resigned as HSE’s head of digital transformation and open innovation in January this year, he told RTÉ radio that the level of resistance he faced was “quite extreme”.
Harris said that this was not surprising, but that it could be overcome. However, change should not be seen as a one-time event, he cautioned.
“The biggest blockage, usually, is inertia and resistance to change. However, a user-centric and design-led approach works well for the public service. That said, taking a user-centric approach, one thing people try to skip over is iteration. This is a mistake. What you really want to do is figure out what needs to be solved, then you solve it as best as you can, and then you feed back into the loop to iterate and improve,” he said.
“In other words, you need to keep an eye on things.”
As the public sector is reasonably advanced, few ‘quick wins’ are left, Harris said, but that should be balanced against the fact that quick wins can sometimes lead to bigger problems later.
For any agency starting out there are tactical quick wins, but those need to be carried out under a strategy; if you just do tactical move after tactical move, you’re not going to achieve something that is going to add up to a complete picture.
Developing a strategy that will lead to cohesive and coherent digital public service provision is to some degree a matter of will, Harris said, and this will can be bolstered by positive results.
“I don’t believe we have an overarching umbrella that gives mandate and support for all the agencies, but where we’ve seen design-led approaches to public service, there have been amazing results,” he said.